When it comes to listening to podcasts on iOS, there are so many great options. The Apple Podcast app comes built into every iOS device with syncing. It’s certainly a great app, but is it the best? On iOS, users have countless third-party options as well. My goal for this article is to break down some of the major podcast apps, and then determine which is best.
Here are the things I am looking at:
- Overall app design
- Audio playback options
- Playlist support
- Any “extra” features
As I mentioned in a recent article, Apple Podcasts is the dominant player in the podcast app market. For other freelance jobs, I manage a few podcasts. On those shows (non-technical content), Apple Podcasts accounts for 80% of the downloads. Usage wise, it’s the most popular podcast app on smartphones.
It’s got a lot of good things going for it. It’s built right into every iOS device. It has a native Apple TV app. It works on macOS (through iTunes). It also has deep Siri support on HomePod.
I think it does a great job of recommending new shows as well. I wish it would include a “social” aspect similar to Apple Music, though.
The overall design fits right into iOS. It’s very similar to Apple Music. On the bottom menu, it includes Listen Now, Library, Browse, and Search. Listen Now shows you the unfinished podcast episodes from shows you subscribe to or one-off episodes you have added. Library will show you a list of all the shows you have added to your subscription list. Browse will allow you to browse the Apple Podcasts directory by featured, top charts, and by category. Search will allow you to search for specific shows.
Syncing works well on Apple Podcasts. New episodes that are on my iPhone will show it within 2–3 seconds of launching the Apple TV app. It includes the ability to playback audio at 1.5x or 2x.
One of the most unsung features of the Apple Podcast app is to create “Stations.” This feature is under the Library section. If you tap on the Edit button, you’ll see the New Station option. This feature will allow you to group podcasts together that you can trigger via Siri. If you listen to a couple of morning shows like The Daily and Up First, you can group them in a “Morning News” station.
Looking ahead to watchOS 5, Apple Watch will have an Apple Podcast app as well. While third party apps will have Apple Watch syncing, they do not appear to have streaming capabilities.
Overall, Apple Podcasts is great. If you listen to a handful of shows, it’s safe to stick with it since it’s built into all of your devices.
Breaker is one of the more innovative podcast apps I’ve used in recent memory. As I mentioned earlier with Apple Podcasts, we’re missing a social aspect to podcast listening. With Breaker, you can follow friends to see what they’re listening to, new shows they subscribe to, and shows they favorite. You can also comment on shows you listen to and your friends can see it. It’ll show you episodes that are getting a lot of traction as well.
If you are a podcaster, you can even “claim” your show so people who listen to your show can “follow you” and engage further. I think this is a great way to build out the community further.
Breaker’s overall design is lovely. I love how everything is laid out. It feels like a 2018 reimagining of what a podcast app should look like. From a playback perspective, it includes speeds up to 3x with the option to “skip silences” to speed up shows.
I can’t think of a single thing I don’t like about Breaker. Of all the apps I’ve tried, it was the most different. If you are bored of all the current podcast apps, you should definitely check out Breaker. It’s a free download on the App Store.
Castro takes a unique approach to subscription management. You subscribe to shows, but then it uses a queue system to manage the shows. As new episodes come in, you can choose to queue a show or archive it. This feature is helpful if you listen to shows that have daily episodes. If you have favorite shows, you can set them to auto queue so you never miss them.
I love Castro’s innovative approach to library management. If you are someone who struggles with keeping up with new episodes, Castro will be a great fit. Like a lot of the other apps, it includes the ability to use different playback speeds and trim silences (Castro Plus required).
Castro is a free download, but it requires a subscription ($ 3 every three months of $ 9 per year) to unlock additional features like trim silence, enhance voices, night mode, and chapter selection.
Castro’s overall design is unique and well done. I’ve used the app off and on from version 1, and I have loved watching it evolve. Castro also includes support for authenticated feeds.
Castro can be downloaded on the App Store.
Downcast has been around for years. It’s a solid app that is well supported. It has all the basic features you’d expect in a podcast app for iPhone. It has multi-speed playback (up to 3x), support for video podcasts, and really great playlist support.
One of the things that set Downcast apart from the rest of the apps is having a native macOS app. While a lot of the apps have web apps, having a native Mac app is very useful.
Another useful feature is the “Startup View”. If you have a playlist you use often, you can have the app launch right into it. Another unique feature is having the app refresh when you arrive at a certain location. If you are on a limited LTE connection, this can ensure you always have news episodes downloading when you get home or to work.
Downcast is $ 3 on the App Store
Pocket Cast, like Downcast, has been around the iPhone podcast app scene for about as long as any app has been. One of the features it pioneered was storing your feeds on a server so refreshing is fast and has minimal effects on battery life.
From a design perspective, Pocket Casts is just beautiful. I love the colors it uses along with the fonts. Like a lot of the other apps, it contains multiple playback speeds, a trim silence option, and a voice boost option. In my years of using the app, Pocket Casts’ playlist system is probably the most robust and laid out the best.
Outside of Apple Podcasts, Pocket Cast probably has the best directory layout. While most of the third party apps simply pull from the Apple Podcasts directory API, how they lay it out is up to them. Pocket Casts’ directory looks great, and it makes it easy to find new shows.
If you want cross platform support, Pocket Casts is a strong contender. They have great iOS apps, but they also have really mature Android applications. They have a web player ($ 9 one time fee), and there are betas of macOS and Windows apps.
Pocket Casts for iOS can be downloaded for $ 4 on the App Store.
I first heard of CastBox a few weeks back when it introduced its Blockchain based Contentbox system.
“Contentbox is a blockchain-based infrastructure for the digital content industry,” Wang told me. “The existing model is broken. Creators are not getting what they deserve and consumers are not getting a reward for engaging with content.”
From an overall design perspective, it’s not awful. I don’t enjoy using the app near as I do some of the other apps, but it’s just a lot of little things. It does include an audiobooks section, but it appears to just be public domain books.
What I don’t like about CastBox is that it appears it’s trying to disrupt the openness of the industry. Last week, I wrote this:
Ultimately, when Apple included podcast support in iTunes 4.9, they decentralized media and jumpstarted an entirely new industry. Anyone could have a voice. Anyone with a microphone and a hosting plan could submit a show to iTunes to build an audience. Apple’s directory is still the defacto one, and they’ve been a great steward of the industry. It’s still built on open standards, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. They’ve never tried to move to technology that they own and control. As when it started, the iTunes/Apple Podcasts directory is still just a collection of RSS feeds.
The current advertising + Patreon-style support model that the majority of podcasts are using has served our industry well. Apple has been building out an overhaul of its analytics feature, and I think the industry is very healthy. When I read about the Contentbox system, I see a platform that wants to control the flow of content. As a long time podcast fan and creator, I don’t like this trend. Podcast as a medium has flourished under out current open model.
Outside the ContentBox system, CastBox doesn’t bring a lot new to the table. I have no problems with the app, but there is nothing to make me want to use it over any of the other apps.
CastBox can be downloaded for free on the App Store.
Overcast has been around since 2013, and has a great following. In the tech-podcast community, I’d argue it’s the most popular outside of Apple Podcasts.
Overcast’s design strikes a nice balance between following modern iOS design standards, but remaining unique. The default color scheme is light and unobtrusive. The main navigation includes a list of your playlists, your subscriptions, and buttons to further manage your subscriptions and playlists.
One of the features it brought to the mainstream was the trim silence feature. Prior to Overcast, a few smaller apps had implemented it, but I really prefer how it sounds with Overcast.
Smart Speed is described as a way to “pick up extra speed without distortion.” Smart Speed “dynamically shortens silences in talk shows. Conversations still sound so natural that you’ll forget it’s on — until you see how much extra time you’ve saved.”
For those who want to save some time listening to certain podcasts, yet who don’t want the distortion that comes with 1.5x or 2x speeds, Smart Speed is a happy medium. All of your shows will be shorter, but you likely won’t be able to tell any difference in listening quality.
Voice Boost is a feature that aims to normalize the volume and make shows easier to listen to when in noisy situations, such as a car or airplane. For shows with less-than-ideal editing, Voice Boost can make shows easier to listen to.
Overcast, like most apps, is pulling from the Apple Podcasts directory to power its directory, but it also has a way to see what other shows your Twitter followers have recommended. This feature is nice, but it’s nowhere near as good as what Breaker is doing.
One of the places Overcast excels is with its Now Playing screen. It’s the easiest to use in my experience. I can quickly see show notes, change chapters, or adjust the audio settings.
Overcast is a free download, and it will have ads (sold by the developer) in the Now Playing and Directory screens. The ads are generally for other shows, and I’ve found them useful. If you subscribe to the yearly subscription ($ 10), you can disable ads.
You also get a file uploads option if you subscribe. If you find yourself downloading lectures from YouTube (and converting to MP3) or listening to DRM-free audiobooks, you’ll love this feature. You get to enjoy all of Overcast’s playback features with whatever audio you upload as well.
Overcast can be downloaded on the App Store.
Which is the best?
App selections are ultimately an opinion. It’s all about which one works with the best with how I listen to shows. Instead of picking just one, I am going to give some guidance on which I think works based on what type of listener you are.
If you listen to a couple of shows a week, you can probably stick with Apple Podcasts. It’s built into all of Apple’s platforms, and it works great.
If you want a lot of social features (comments, a friend feed, etc), I would recommend Breaker. It’s bringing some unique features to the table that I expect other apps to emulate in the near future.
If you are a hardcore podcast user (5+ shows a week, needing support for feeds that require a login, etc), I would recommend Overcast. It’s frequently updated, and the developer has long been a supporter of the open podcast ecosystem.
The wildcard in all of this is how apps adopt watchOS 5’s new features for podcast apps. Apple Podcasts is built right into watchOS 5, and it will likely have access to APIs the other apps don’t (streaming on LTE is one). How this plays out will impact my advice in the future. We will certainly update this article has the market evolves?
What do you think? Did I miss any apps? Are their features I didn’t consider? Let’s discuss in the comments.
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